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A San José Teacher Is Charged With Sexual Abuse. His School District Knew of Alleged Misconduct a Decade Ago

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Children play on grass behind a chainlink- fence beside a sign reading "Adelante I: Dual Language Academy."
Students run past a sign outside Adelante Dual Language Academy in San José on June 8, 2023. Records obtained by KQED show a music teacher arrested this year for sexually abusing 10 students at Adelante had received complaints at a different school for inappropriately touching students before he was transferred. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

A music teacher at a TK–8 school in San José had a history of complaints roughly a decade before he was criminally charged with sexually abusing students last year, records obtained by KQED show.

Israel Santiago, 43, was arrested in November under suspicion of sexually abusing 10 students beginning in 2021 at Adelante Dual Language Academy. He faces 12 charges, including multiple counts of molestation and lewd acts on a child by force.

Last year was not the first time a student reported being inappropriately touched by Santiago, according to the records provided by the Alum Rock Union Elementary School District in response to a Public Records Act request.

Students at two other schools in the district, Sheppard Middle School and Painter Elementary, had reported concerns about Santiago’s behavior to school staff from 2012 through 2014, records show. The district did not provide records of any complaints made to the school in the years that followed.

One student said Santiago put his hand on her back and rubbed her back while he praised her. Another said Santiago repeatedly hugged her, asked her for hugs and “picked her up, putting his arms under her legs and carrying her.”

“Mr. Santiago has failed to practice good judgment regarding physical contact with students, in particular, females, and I find that conduct to be inappropriate and unprofessional,” former Sheppard Middle School Principal Imee Almazan wrote at the conclusion of a personnel investigation in 2014.

Alum Rock Union Elementary School District didn’t fire Santiago in 2014, despite the investigation documenting multiple complaints of Santiago inappropriately touching students after repeated warnings.

Instead, the district issued a letter of reprimand, and determined he should be transferred to another school in the district.

Santiago started teaching at Adelante in 2015, according to Cesar Torrico, assistant superintendent of human resources at Alum Rock.

The district superintendent, Hilaria Bauer, declined to answer any questions about past complaints against Santiago and how they were handled.

But Bauer wrote that the district has since adopted “a clearer and stronger process to prevent these incidents from happening and to encourage any other victims to come forward.”

“We provided extra training during our monthly safety meeting on Dec. 7 and directed all site administrators to retake the mandated reporter training from the beginning of the year. This also included all staff,” Bauer wrote.

Almazan, who is currently director of social and emotional learning at Alum Rock Union School District, declined to comment.

‘We don’t feel safe’

Records from the school district’s 2014 investigation include some documentation of prior complaints against Santiago from students at Painter Elementary and Sheppard Middle School in 2012 and 2013.

Natalie Hernandez, 22, said she was in Santiago’s band class at Sheppard Middle School in 2012 and had reported his behavior to the principal.

She and her friends had been passionate about band and loved playing instruments together, forming a whole community inside the small band room. She mainly played flute, but would dabble in the clarinet and the saxophone.

But over time, she said, she became increasingly alarmed by her band teacher.

She said Santiago asked her to stay in the band room during a break between classes to practice a piece she could already play with her eyes closed.

“He kept adjusting his chair and my chair so our knees could be touching and we’d be really close to each other,” Hernandez said. “I remember I just felt a really big rush of anxiety. I just did not feel comfortable at all.”

Hernandez said she told the principal, Almazan, how Santiago would only ask female students to stay after class.

“I strictly remember telling her we don’t feel safe,” Hernandez said.

Santiago remained at the school until 2014. When Hernandez learned he had been transferred to another school in the district, she was furious.

“I just remember being so angry, and even to this day, I’m so angry,” Hernandez said. “It’s almost as if they forgot that we were kids.”

A father’s written sexual harassment complaint prompts investigation

The records show that Santiago had been instructed in 2012 not to touch students, particularly female students. But he allegedly continued, and a father filed a written complaint that Santiago sexually harassed his daughter in 2014.

The school’s investigation prompted by that complaint included interviews with 15 students, and found “an overall discomfort and/or feeling of insecurity in Mr. Santiago’s band class among female students that were interviewed.”

Out of nine female students interviewed, seven said they were not comfortable in the classroom with Santiago, and one female student said she had been touched inappropriately by him on multiple occasions. Two students said Santiago walked in on them during a dress fitting.

The male students interviewed did not report similar discomfort.

‘Not sufficiently severe and pervasive’

Almazan also wrote in the report that she had called Child Protective Services to report Santiago in 2014, but was told the allegations against a teacher were “not a reportable CPS case.” CPS offered to take a “courtesy report” that would be forwarded to law enforcement, according to the records.

Frank Motta, chief of staff at the Santa Clara County Social Services Agency, declined to comment on any specific cases, but said the agency reports information to law enforcement to pursue criminal investigations when allegations do not involve caregivers.

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The San José Police Department declined to immediately comment on the past complaints. A police spokesperson previously told NBC Bay Area that an allegation of inappropriate touching was made against Santiago in 2014, but that no charges were filed.

Ultimately Almazan and the school district found that the conduct was not “sufficiently severe and pervasive” to amount to sexual harassment. In the letter of reprimand, the district instructed Santiago again not to touch students and to take a minimum of two hours of training related to sexual harassment.

“Based on Principal Almazan’s recommendation to Human Resources and to the Superintendent we have decided to transfer you out of Sheppard Middle School,” the March 10, 2014, letter of reprimand from the district’s chief human resources officer says.

Santiago worked at Adelante until he was placed on leave last November soon before his arrest.

Prosecutors investigate recent allegations

According to Santa Clara County prosecutors, at the beginning of the 2021–2022 school year, Santiago would take children into his office, hold girls on his lap and hug them tightly to his body. Prosecutors say he cupped female students’ buttocks while hugging them on his lap, and stroked the bare skin of a fourth grader’s back.

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Santiago, who has not yet entered a plea, remains in custody in Santa Clara County. His next court hearing is scheduled for July 14. Santiago’s defense attorney, Steven Clark, declined to comment on the criminal case or records showing past complaints.

The school’s decision to transfer Santiago may have emboldened his behavior, said Lauren Cerri, an attorney with Corsiglia McMahon and Allard who specializes in childhood sexual abuse cases, and who reviewed the records provided by the school district.

“These complaints are being made, and he’s moved to another school,” Cerri said. “What are those administrators told? Are they even told about the prior complaints? Are they told to keep an extra eye on him and supervise him more closely?”

Cerri is currently representing three women suing the Alum Rock Union Elementary School District for allegedly failing to report abuse by a first grade teacher in the 1970s to authorities.

“And it appears that this is still happening today in the same district,” Cerri said.

The district disputes the allegations in their court filing.

The community seeks answers

After Santiago was arrested, the Alum Rock school board passed a resolution “reaffirming the critical role of school personnel as mandated reporters.”

The resolution outlines that the district must “provide a hard copy of the mandated reporter training presentation to all staff and the school board” and encourage all district staff to attend annual mandated reporter training in person.

A children and adults circulate beside a playground behind a chainlink fence.
Students and staff walk through the playground at Adelante Dual Language Academy in San José on June 8, 2023. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

Still, some in the Alum Rock community have voiced frustration during recent school board meetings about a lack of transparency and poor communication by district leadership.

Three substitute principals are currently working at Adelante, according to the district’s website.

The principal who reported Santiago, Maria Gutierrez, has been on paid leave since December for an unrelated issue, according to her attorney, Donald A. Velez.

“The one person doing the right thing is being targeted,” Velez said. “You have all these complaints over all this time. It comes to a head. And the person who has only been there a year is the one who is taking the brunt of this.”

Velez declined to describe the specifics of why the principal is on leave but said it stems from an incident between two students, including a school board member’s family member.

District superintendent Bauer declined to comment.

Rosalinda Marquez, who worked for the district until this year, said Alum Rock must begin to take concerns from parents seriously. She said she was not surprised to learn how the district had responded to past complaints against Santiago.

“It hurts my heart that I wasn’t surprised,” Marquez said. “It just seems par for the course for Alum Rock. They aren’t listening. They don’t know how to listen. It just seems like any issue that arises either gets Band-Aid solutions or no solutions at all.”

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